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China UnionPay seeks to turn its bank cards into international force

TOKYO -- China UnionPay is racing to make its bank cards acceptable everywhere it wants to be around the globe.

     In Thailand, 70% of retail stores accept UnionPay cards. Though that makes it convenient for Chinese tourists, the company is seeking to spread the use among Thais. UnionPay hit the ground running toward that goal when it signed a chip card licensing agreement with the Thailand Bankers Association on Aug. 18.

     Bank cards and credit cards issued in Thailand will carry chips using UnionPay's technology. The cards can be used in shops accepting UnionPay cards in China and other places. The company plans to up the number of UnionPay cards in Thailand to 1.5 million by year-end, or 50% more than the current total.

Chinese tourists, who often use UnionPay cards, shopping at a Tokyo store.

     About 400,000 stores accept UnionPay cards in Japan, and companies such as Sumitomo Mitsui Card issue them. On Thursday, Seven-Eleven Japan jumped on the bandwagon, making it possible for the cards to be used in all of its roughly 18,000 convenience stores in Japan. Rivals Lawson and FamilyMart also aim to use UnionPay cards as a way to pull in foreign tourists.

     Through partnerships with major convenience stores, UnionPay cards will become familiar to Japanese people, UnionPay International CEO Cai Jianbo said.

     In Myanmar, UnionPay entered a business tie-up with the Myanmar Payment Union in which they will issue debit cards carrying both companies' logos.

     China UnionPay has issued 14 million cards in South Korea. Use of the card in that country rose with the two nations' economic interchange. Many South Koreans use the cards on business trips or work transfers to China.

     China's biggest bank card company has issued more than 5 billion cards worldwide, and its cards were used in 41 trillion yuan ($6.44 trillion) worth of transactions last year. Visa's global share in transactions shrank to 31% in 2014 from 2010's 38%, according to British research firm Euromonitor. UnionPay's share grew from 14% to 33%, making it the largest in the world. Card transactions in the Asian-Pacific region are expected to reach $12.25 trillion in 2016, over half of the $24.11 trillion worldwide, according to Euromonitor's latest analysis.

     Right now UnionPay is used in 26 million stores in 150 nations and regions. The number of UnionPay cards issued outside China's mainland reached 46 million, exceeding the roughly 20 million JCB cards issued outside Japan. Still, the number of UnionPay cards issued overseas is less than 1% of the company's total.

     China UnionPay is scrambling to add foreign locations to its network as it faces tougher competition at home.

     Chinese authorities allowed foreign card companies such as Visa and MasterCard to operate in the domestic bank card clearing market starting June 1. Web retailer Alibaba's payment service, Alipay, enjoys a huge share among online purchasers wary of the rampant digital credit card fraud in China.

      Users can make purchases from smartphones using Alipay bar codes, and a growing number of brick-and-mortar stores such as France's Carrefour are adopting the system. Although UnionPay is still dominant domestically because it is accepted everywhere, Alibaba is in position to change that dynamic because its pay system does not need expensive terminals.

Nikkei staff writers Noriyuki Doi in Shanghai, Tamaki Kyozuka in Bangkok and Koichi Kato in Seoul contributed to this story.

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